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Linux and virtual appliances: Five info points

VMware's partnership with Red Hat is only the beginning of what could soon become a slew of packaged virtual appliances in your data center. Here's how to get started.

When executives from VMware Inc. and commercial Linux vendor Red Hat said they would expand cooperation between the two companies on the Linux front, it signaled a possible shift in the way IT managers might look at operating system distribution in the future.

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At the heart of the VMware-Red Hat union was the development of a certification program that would cement a higher level of interoperability between VMware's virtualization platform and Red Hat's flagship operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 (RHEL5). Red Hat Linux was the first operating system certified by VMware as part of its Virtual Appliance Marketplace, unveiled in November.

Also part of the deal was a plan to deliver packaged applications that included RHEL5, the Red Hat Application Stack, VMware's Virtual Infrastructure, and VMware Server. When vendors like VMware promise packaged applications, the hook for IT managers is that the task of configuring those applications has been removed by the vendor.

But for Rachel Chalmers, a senior analyst with New York-based 451 Group, it will pay to understand what vendors mean when they start talking about virtual appliances and packaging. This is especially true given that the technology is so new, and even with packaging it will need a level-headed IT manager to make it all work for the data center, not against it.

In this five-point checklist below, Chalmers laid out some of the topics every IT manager should understand when researching virtual appliances and the new ways applications -- including the OS -- might soon be delivered to their doorstep. For all their advertised conveniences, packaged applications and virtual appliances will require IT managers to invest a bit of work to get it right.

  • Virtual Appliances. A virtual appliance is a software application shipped with a pre-configured operating system inside a virtual machine. Market leader VMware and commercial Linux vendor Red Hat's recently announced partnership in this area mirrored an interoperability pact between Microsoft and Red Hat's main competitor Novell Inc.
  • Packaging. The packaging of the operating system with a suite of other applications like Red Hat Application Server is designed to slash the cost of installing, configuring and maintaining a new application, in theory meaning fewer tasks for the IT manager to complete. Packaging was introduced to eliminate medial tasks for the IT administrator so it's cheaper and faster, said Chalmers, and that means hiring on fewer staff members if budgets are tight.
  • Vendor maintained. One drawback of the packaging approach is that each application vendor will be maintaining its own operating system, usually a custom Linux distribution. Oracle is doing this with its Unbreakable Linux platform, which in essence is an exact clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux with cheaper support.
  • TLC. For all their benefits, virtual appliances still need care and feeding. Linux administrators will need to seek out vendors they can trust. Like any significant investment, research and testing are necessary tools before any mission critical components of the data center are moved over, migrated or put under the auspices of a virtual appliance. For example, Oracle promises 50% less expensive support than what Red Hat can offer for RHEL5, but analysts have said their brand of Linux support is still unproven.
  • Watch the vendors. With the "TLC" point a consideration, IT managers will begin to see more deals like the one between VMware and Red Hat to provide mutual certification, additional advancements in the area of interoperability and Red Hat's Application Stack as a virtual appliance. Understanding what's being packaged and what is included in the vendor's maintained and pre-configured applications is vital. Make sure you really need it, and aren't suffering from a "treadmill effect," Chalmers said, wherein you're only getting something because it seems like every other IT manager on the block has taken the virtual bait. Don't expect a similar deal from Novell however, as it would be counterproductive to its Linux-Windows interoperability partnership with Microsoft.

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